Last Labor Day, armed with burgers and sweet corn fresh off the grill, potato squares with sausage, homemade lemon bars and a six-pack of root beer, and balancing plastic lawn chairs and a basket of mums, I arrived at the senior living community my parents called home determined to take the Labor Day party outside. My plan was to coax my dad out of bed with my snazzy farmer’s market fixings and turn their teeny patio into an outdoor paradise. My goal: to transform months of the hard labor of illness into an afternoon of summertime fun.
The idea for sun and sizzle quickly fizzled. I held my dad’s hand as the paramedics hoisted him off the couch and onto a stretcher. I remember assuring my parents all would be well, as I asked the men in uniform if they needed me to carry the oxygen tank. It was I who got the reassuring: Thanks, but no thanks. They had the oxygen thing covered, the ambulance was equipped.
Desperate to be helpful and protect my dad and mom, I remember locking the door, and then unlocking it and racing back into the room to snag my dad’s reading glasses and the pile of library books off the coffee table. “I’ve got your books, dad.” I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I needed to bring his books. I thought if he had his books, he would be okay.
Fast forward one month to early October 2008. It is just around 7 pm and the sun is starting to set outside the window of the ICU room on the 5th floor of Hinsdale Adventist Hospital where he has been since the aborted Labor Day picnic. My sister has flown in from San Francisco, and my brother travels now every afternoon from his office, an hour-and-a-half away. The CT scan has revealed the reason for my dad’s last three years of torment: He has stage four lung cancer. Earlier that morning, his primary physician, team leader of six specialists, got down on his knees, held my dad’s hands and said, “I’m sorry, Paul. I am sorry.” My siblings and mom have gone to the local Cosi for dinner and to discuss hospice.
The June when I was 21 and just back in the Chicago suburbs at home, jobless and with my journalism degree from Arizona State University, I remember answering the pink princess phone. “Mary, can you do me a favor?,” my dad asked. It was midday. He was at the commuter train station. He was 55 at the time and, after 30 years at the same insurance company, told his job was no longer. I drove to the station to pick him up. There he stood in his blue pin-stripped suit, juggling a cardboard box, a shopping bag and his briefcase, with his library book tucked under his arm.
Thirty years later, my dad asked me for a second favor: “Mary, would you read to me.” For the next week, when he was moved from ICU to a hospice bed at home, I stood at his bedside. He held the book, and I bent over his bed and read from the pages of The Bourne Sanction, and swabbed his mouth with root beer.
My father, Paul Von Driska, went home to as he calls "God’s Heaven," on Oct. 3, 2008, at 3:30 p.m. in his home, held in the love of his children, my mom and his grandchildren – his book in his hands. All day, they kept saying, “This was it.” But he waited, and five minutes after my college-aged son Thomas rushed from his classroom to my dad’s bedside, we said our final goodbyes to “Pa.”
He would have loved to know the sun was shining, friends from the retirement community stopped by and his favorite song "On the Street Where You Live” and all the others (including the Notre Dame Fight Song) played throughout the course of the day. I wrote his obit for The Chicago Tribune. Like my father, I read books always and I write books now to make a living. The gift he gave me has become the avocation and vocation that has become a lifeline, keeping me financially afloat while raising three teens on my own.
The obit gives a small glimpse of a man who epitomized selflessness and embraced the simple pleasures in life. He had vices: books, singing and making every day “a little Christmas for others.” The image I will carry in my heart of my dad forever is him always carrying two bags—one in each hand—with food or clothing for "the poor." The trunk of my parent’s car was always filled with gifts they had for others, often my children, and always, always for "the poor." And of course, a book tucked under his arm when he would come to babysit for my kids, so I could go live one of his dreams and write for a newspaper.
In his late 70’s, while volunteering to count money at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, my dad’s voice was discovered by the choir director who happened to be sitting next to him at the Christmas luncheon for volunteers. This Irishman by marriage (and devout Notre Dame fan who was schooled by the Jesuits) was invited to take the stage with the choir and the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra for the annual for Siamsa na n Gael and make his singing debut at Symphony Center in Chicago.
Recently, while helping my mother pack up some of my father’s things, we made several discoveries. He had 22 golf shirts, she pointed out. And, despite her urgings that it had become tattered, his Notre Dame hoodie was hidden (along with the cane he refused to use) in the back of his closet. Thomas now dons Pa’s “Fighting Irish” sweatshirt proudly.
But “it” was resting on the top of the sock drawer. That’s where I spotted the only thing I wanted—his little blue notebook. It contains in his writing a list of hundreds and hundreds of books—by author, listed in alphabetical order—that he had read in the last few years. And, in the back of the notebook, there is a list of books he wanted to read—he had dozens of them listed. They were my dad’s next adventures.
These days, I carry his little blue notebook, along with his greatest dreams—that his children and his grandchildren would find a little bit of Christmas blessing in each day. We do, always. A large part of my work now is writing for non-profits, “the poor,” as he’d call them. Ironically, in his little blue notebook, were some unfinished notes he was writing to help raise funds for his high school, St. Ignatius in Chicago. He preached Jesuit education, having also graduated from Loyola and insisting his children were schooled with a nun’s ruler and a priest’s prayers. Ironically, this Spring I was invited to give a talk to Jesuit seminarians on the power of creating stories (I imagined him smiling from above) and helped with a powerful writing project for Christ The King College Preparatory School (http://www.ctkjesuit.org) in Chicago’s inner city neighborhood of Austin. I’ve likened the experience to what I am dubbing “hope dreams,” as the students who live in the worst ravages of the city, are teaching me that anything is possible during a time when a lot has been taken away.
So, this Labor Day, I am thankful for my father’s legacy, for the liberating gift of reading and writing that now carries us all and for the promise of what lies ahead for me: a notebook with hundreds and hundreds of recommended reads. Cheers, dad, to root beer and books!
Mary Beth Sammons is an award-winning journalist and author who writes about the ups and downs of handling life, health and wellness, and reinventing your life with grace and gusto in More, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune’s lifestyle section and on various online health and wellness websites, including AOL Health. Mary Beth has written eight books, including Second Acts That Change Lives: Making a Difference in the World, We Carry Each Other: Getting Through Life’s Toughest Times; My Family: Collected Memories; and Gifts with Heart. She is a cause-related marketing specialist who works with non-profits including an inner city high school in Chicago and many more. She led the team that created the editorial content for RevolutionHealth.com’s CarePages.com and grew the community to 4 million. Mary Beth has won several awards for her writing including United Press International for best spot news coverage, a PR Silver Anvil Award and a scholarship from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. She is very grateful to live a very active life as mom of three children in Chicago’s northern suburbs and competes in triathlons, as athlete and as a sojourner, seeking an abundant life.